Out of more than 1,000 students in the Harvard class of 1952, four were African American. Contrast this with the 150 or so African-American students in the recently admitted class of 2010.
Each of the 1952 grads went on to a successful career. But in 1952 their success, both at Harvard and after graduation, was viewed quite differently from the way it would be today. In the racial atmosphere of the early ’50s, these Harvard graduates were viewed as pioneers, groundbreakers who “represented the Negro race at Harvard.” And, indeed, they were.
In fact, African Americans throughout the country were so proud of them that Jet magazine carried a feature article on the undergraduate men titled “Harvard’s Negro Student Leaders.” The four were Walter Carrington of Lowell House, then president of the Liberal Political Union and later a U.S. ambassador; James Harkless, who was the president of the Harvard Glee Club; William Simmons, editor of the Harvard Crimson; and Herbert Hughes, a Winthrop House undergraduate and mathematics concentrator who later became a Peace Corps official in Africa where he conducted training in mathematics.
When they arrived at Harvard, the black students were required by the University to room together – Carrington and Harkless in Lowell House, and Simmons and Hughes in Winthrop House. It was this forced segregated residence hall policy that prompted the four men to form Harvard’s first NAACP chapter and formally protest Harvard’s position on race at that time. Despite their protest, the four Harvard undergraduates did not permit this type of racial discrimination to impede their academic development or to prevent them from asserting their leadership abilities in a number of areas. It was not easy for an African American at that time to become president of the Harvard Glee Club, or the Harvard Crimson, or the Liberal Union. In so many ways, these four young men laid the foundation for the racial and ethnic diversity that Harvard enjoys today. On Saturday (April 29), the Harvard Foundation and the students of the Black Men’s Forum will welcome these African-American “pioneers” back to Harvard College and honor them with a reception and dinner in Lowell House.
The Lowell House reception and recognition ceremony for Harvard’s African-American ‘pioneers’ will take place in the Lowell House Junior Common Room at 7 p.m. April 29. It is open to the Harvard community.
“As dean of Harvard College, I am delighted to welcome these distinguished gentlemen and alumni of the Class of ’52 back to their collegiate roots to meet with our current students,” said Benedict Gross ’71, Leverett Professor of Mathematics. “The College is proud of their outstanding contributions as undergraduate leaders, and their post-baccalaureate achievements.”
“The students and faculty of the Harvard Foundation are pleased to welcome Misters Carrington, Harkless, Hughes, and Simmons back to their alma mater to be saluted for their trailblazing efforts in race relations at Harvard College,” said S. Allen Counter, director of the Harvard Foundation. “Their presence and words will connect across generations to the Harvard College students of today and … [give them a sense of] the pre-Civil Rights era, in which the University was not as inclusive of the nation’s diverse citizenry, and when the weight of racial understanding and the perceptions of the intellectual equality of their ethnic group ‘rested on their shoulders.’ Welcome home ye great and noble pioneers, and thank you for setting a fine example for us all.”